Physics vs. Physicalism

In this post I want to discuss how Quantum Mechanics presents a weak-spot for physicalism, opening possibilities for different types of accounts of mental-physical relation which are still compatible with physics. The argument is nothing new, but I hope to spell-out the relation more clearly, and I felt that I need to in part because of some things that I intend to argue in future posts.

The question of what is physicalism, is probably best approached through the notion of supervenience, so let’s start from there.
If there cannot be difference in set of properties A of two things, without there being difference in set of properties B for those two things, we say that – set of properties A supervenes on the set of properties B.

Applied to a usual case it goes like this: If there cannot be difference in mental properties of two things, without there being difference in physical properties of those two things, we say that mental supervenes on physical.
The statement that in fact this relation holds – that mental supervenes on physical, is usually taken as formulation of physicalism about mental properties (for detailed discussion of needed types of supervenience for physicalism see Pete’s post and paper over at Brain Hammer).

It should be noted here that in order for the claim – “There cannot be difference in mental properties, without difference in physical properties” to count as formulation for physicalism, the “cannot” should be taken as metaphysically necessary. That is so because even dualists can accept that claim if “cannot” is only nomologically necessary. They can hold that given the specific physical and psychophysical laws, it is true  that two things can’t differ in their mental properties without differing in their physical properties; but that metaphysically that it is not necessary. In such way dualist holds that zombies, beings that differ from us in mental properties (they lack conscious experience), but are same in their physical properties are metaphysically possible.

What I want to discuss here is however not specifically physicalism about mental, but physicalism in general, which would be characterized by the slogan: “there cannot be any difference without a physical difference”.

But how does this claim relates to the Quantum Mechanics (QM)?

Here is quick and dirty sum-up of QM (no, it is not your monitor, it is dirty mostly because of my limited understanding of the topic):

What we are interested in QM is a physical system. It is characterized by a)type, which defines the unchanging properties of the system and b)state of a system at time t – a complete specification of the properties of the system that do change with time, at time t.

Given a physical system, QM gives us two laws which tell us about the dynamics of the system (how it behaves though time):

D1:Given that we know the state of the system at time t1, and we know what kind of forces affect it, there is an equation called ‘Schrödinger’s equation’, which tells us what will be the state of that system at some other time t2.

D2:When a specific measurement is made of some variable of the system, there is only a statistical prediction based on the state of the system that tell us the probability that we will get certain value for that property.

So, we have two dynamical laws, one is deterministic and tells us about evolution of the unobserved system, and the other is probabilistic and gives us statistical prediction of what we would get if we measure specific variable of that system. It is open question of different interpretation of what constitutes a “collapse”, i.e. when does the rule D2 apply, and even if it ever applies, or if maybe the whole story could be told only by the Schrödinger’s equation.

There are different approaches to the problem of measurement (D2). Some interpretations of QM (like Everett’s interpretation) –  say that nothing but D1 is needed and it fully describes what is happening in the world, and that D2 can be interpreted (or reduced) to the experiences of the observers in that world (those observers also being fully determined by D1), or alternatively that D2 is not needed as there is Many Worlds each for any possible value of measured value. Other interpretations try to explain the probabilistic nature of D2 by hidden variables (For a overview of the discussions around the topic of possibility of hidden variables you can check the entries on Bell’s Theorem and Kochen-Specker Theorem on SEP).

by  Drift Words
Don’t look – you make things collapse

However here I will put my attention on the possibility of different approach to the problematic of measurement problem, in order to connect it to the issue of supervenience, and show how it leaves a weak-spot for physicalism.

It is a consequence of the D2 that – if we have two systems of same type, and which are in same state, and we do same measurement of both of them, it is not necessary that we will get the same results.
Hence, the result of the measurement doesn’t supervene on the state of the physical system, i.e. there can be difference in results of the measurements, without difference in physical properties.

Does this undermines physicalism?
I think it doesn’t have to from what is said so far, even we don’t accept any of the physicalist-friendly interpretations of the QM. The physicalist will just say that nothing in the story really leaves the realm of physical. After all the measurement and the quantity measured is measurement of physical quantity.

It does become problem though, if one buys into a variation of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which we could state thus:there is sufficient reason for everything (event, thing, etc..) being as it is, and not otherwise.. In this case we get something which is not necessarily physical – namely the reason for the collapse being “as it is, and not different”, and we can say that the reason why the measurement gave such result doesn’t supervene on the physical state of the measured system.

So, QM gives us possibility to look for reasons for different behavior (as far as that behavior falls under collapsed properties for which D2 is needed) in something other than the physical state of the system. Most obviously, I guess, this opens possibility for interactionism (type of dualism, where the mental can affect physical), but as I’m not proponent of dualism, my interest in this possibility doesn’t lay there. More on this in some next post.

Unity Of Consciousness Or Being-In-The-World?

In the previous post, I said that one motivation I have for holding holistic view comes from what is usually called “unity of consciousness”. Unity of consciousness refers to the fact that we experience lot of things as a whole – for example as I’m typing this, my experience is a whole – the notebook in front of me, the room around me, the noise of the fan, the sound of the cars outside, the feel of touch of my fingers on the keyboard, the emotions that I have, the taste of the coffee in my mouth – I experience everything at once, as a whole.

In most cases reductionist thinking reacts to this wholeness by assuming that we need to explain it as a “weird” property of the mental, set aside from the physical world which is taken for granted.

The sciences give us the detailed picture of how the outside world affects our sensory organs. The photons (reflected from the physical things) fall on our eyes, get focused by the lens and are directed to the retina, where they are registered by a matrix of rod and cone cells, and associated neurons. The waves in the air, produced by this or that physical phenomenon (including the rotation of the fan, the speech of people, etc…), get to our ears, affect our ear-drums which in turn excite the associated neurons, the matrix of nerve endings on our skin fire as a result of pressure and temperature, the taste buds on our tongue react with the chemical make-up of whatever is that we have put in our mouth and send signals through the nerves to the cortex, and so on…
So, the physical picture is one where we have manifold of physical things affecting our manifold of sensory organs, which in turn send their signals deeper in the brain.

What follows from this kind of picture is that somehow this manifold (affected by differentiating and  conceptual faculties we have), is synthesized in the brain into one whole conscious experience. The result is the unity of conscious experience, or as it is also called “phenomenal experience”. It is set versus the objective world outside of the body. Further, in this view as the whole experience is created somehow in the brain, our experienced body, and our brain within that body is but a part of that phenomenal experience, and thus should be distinguished from our objective, or as might be called transphenomenal body/transphenomenal brain. I took those terms from the Wolfgang Metzger paper- The Phenomenal-Perceptual Field as a Central Steering Mechanism, though I guess Kantian terms of phenomena vs. noumena could also be used. The mentioned paper also includes the following interesting picture, taken from Norbert Bischof’s first volume of the large German handbook of psychology:


It is clear however that root of the sciences is in this phenomenal experience, in our being-in-the-(phenomenal)-world, and that the scientist approaches the phenomena in that same world in which she is, and that the scientist is basing her conclusions on the measurement results and other phenomena that she observes in that same world, including e.g. a coincidence between the pointer and lines of the scales of the measuring instrument or in modern times the read-out of different displays.

The scientist then, searching for the regularities behind the phenomena, gives us explanation about the “why” of the phenomena, reducing it in terms different then the everyday ones. But even those things of which scientist speaks are never seen as leaving the phenomenal world. It is that chair in my experience that I approach (in the same phenomenal world) with this specific  scientific apparatus (also in my phenomenal world), and it is there (in the phenomenal world) where I find that the chair consist of such and such cells. The cells are there in the phenomenal world, but they are so small that they can’t be seen without a specific apparatus. But take your microscope (there it is on that phenomenal table), and point it to a specific chunk of wood, and now the wood cells can be seen.

So, to sum-up, I see two possible approaches (excuse me for the oversimplification and overgeneralization):

a) Based on the sciences and their reductionism which speaks of the world in terms of small separate things, or energy in space time, or some such abstraction (where we and our bodies have dependent existence), we are inclined to postulate the phenomenal experience as a mental phenomenon, as this whole of experience is incompatible with the assumed self-subsistence of the micro-world.

If we (uncritically) take then as starting point what sciences tell us of the world, and limit ourselves to the terms of the sciences (or abstractions of the sciences), we will need to assume that all those other notions that we have, somehow emerge in the interaction of the brain and the world (as more or less nominal concepts).

It is in this view that dualism is grounded also. The dualist, not conceiving the possibility to explain all the phenomena of which we are conscious, sees as necessary to assume the existence of another type of essence (or type of properties), which added to the already present physical base are supposed to present to us the possibility of those “problematic” phenomena (e.g. qualia, consciousness, unity of
consciousness, etc..).


b) If we analyze the origins of science starting from the being-in-the-world, it appears that the sciences themselves never leave, nor have reason to leave the phenomenal experience, and that the explanations by the sciences too are never seen as leaving the so-called phenomenal world.
The being-in-the-world taken as starting point is a whole. A whole full of content of which we are more or less directly aware. Think of colors, sounds, emotions, change, agency, art, and so on. A content which is not seen as a phenomenal content created by the transphenomenal brain, but as content existing in the world in which we exist. In this view then, the unity of consciousness among with the other things – qualia, existence, change, agency, and so on, is not a problem which we need to localize in the mental space, but appears as such only if we want to start from the reductionistic picture.

Unity Of Consciousness

Bill Vallicella, over at Maverick Philosopher in very interesting post about the subsistence of souls, mentions the unity of consciousness, and says:

Sitting before a fire, I see the flames, feel the heat, smell the smoke, and hear the crackling of the logs. The sensory data are unified in one consciousness of a selfsame object. This unification does not take place in the eyes or in the ears or in the nostrils or in any other sense organ, and to say that it takes place in the brain is not a good answer. For the brain is a partite physical thing extended in space. If the unity of consciousness is identified with a portion of the brain, then the unity is destroyed. For no matter how small the portion of the brain, it has proper parts external to each other. Every portion of the brain, no matter how small, is a complex entity. But consciousness in the synthesis of a manifold is a simple unity. Hence the unity of consciousness cannot be understood along materialist lines.

I quote this, because it is one of the main reasons why I find holistic model plausible.

As Vallicella says, in the case of consciousness it is impossible to imagine how separate elements (of any kind, be it atoms, or some sense-data/qualia or whatever) can create a unity of experience as we have.

If you think it is possible, you are probably making a subtle fallacy. Namely we can imagine a configuration of parts as a whole, but when one is talking about parts constituting the whole, it is important to keep the parts in their assumed self-subsistence and determination as such, and be careful not to introduce into the imagination element which is not in them. And when we imagine the parts as constituting the whole, the quality of wholeness doesn’t in some way emerge from those parts, but it appears there only because it is our unity of consciousness in which we do the imagining. But, because this unity is that which is of need of explanation, it means that if we are critical in our thinking, we should stay with those abstractions (parts) in which we want to find the possibility to create whole. But that is impossible, as it is implicit in their being abstractions, that by their nature that they are just multitude which can’t by its own make quality of wholeness. The moment we imagine them together, we are adding quality of wholeness from our unity of consciousness.

Because of that, the whole must be taken as a fundamental principle, which can’t be reduced to some other abstractions. As it is clear from my past posts, I take being-in-the-world as this starting whole which is irreducible neither to subject and world, and of course not reducible to objectively existing things in the world, like atoms, energy or whatever.

My Web Of Beliefs, 2006

I liked the Richard’s, Clark’s and Jeff’s webs, so here is my continuation of the meme.
I might went to far with the linking to previous posts, but anyway it appears it is good way to give a better overview of my ideas to the reader, and can act as an index to what I have wrote about. So here we go…

Philosophy Grounded In Being-In-The-World and Abstractions

To my thinking, the philosophy has to take as starting point the being-in-the-world. We start philosophical thinking as a being-in-the-world – a whole which contains both the subject and the world, but not as some components from which being-in-the-world is constituted, but from which both subject and the world can be abstracted.

And, in general, any notion we have is an abstraction from this being-in-the-world. That our thinking is within this being-in-the-world, I argued in the post Closure of Phenomenal World.

On the very start of this blog, I wrote a series of posts, in which I tried to explain what I mean by Abstraction, and how it relates to Attention, Determining and the relations between Given and Attention, Given and Determining and Determining and Nothing, etc…

I take that what is called “universals” are abstractions which appear as intentional content of our intentional acts, and that particulars fall under abstractions when we are able to abstract the universal from the particular. I talked about the relation between the universals and particulars, and how the universals can’t be seen neither as some “construction” based on multiplicity of particulars, nor as something grounded in our minds, and not in the world (Kantian approach) in other series of posts… Defending Metaphysics 1, 2 and 3.


In connection to previous, I wrote about my belief that philosophy is about the comprehension of the relations between those abstractions, and that can’t be anything else in the post What I take to be the grounds of Philosophy.

I further argued that there is no need for justification of such comprehensions in the post Metaphysics Manifesto.

Words And Their Meanings

I spent a lot of posts on issues connected to words and their meanings. Basically, my belief is that the the original baptizer give can give name only to something that appears as content of his/her intentional acts, and the transcendence of the meanings of the words (there, I accept anti-psychologism of Frege and Husserl) is grounded in the transcendence of the intentional content.

I talked about the need for accepting the transcendence of intentional content in lot of posts, but I think the first one was Intra-Subjective vs. Inter-Subjective Transcendence, and I wrote about my beliefs that properly this transcendence can be grounded in being-in-the-world, in the posts Noticing The People Notice Things We NoticeTranscendence, Strawberries and Mindless Robots, Grounding the Inter-Subjective Transcendence, and Few Explanatory Notes on the previous post.

I believe that one of the most usual way of learning the words is the ostensive teaching, in which the learner of the words learns no just the word, but in which the crucial moment is the requirement from the learner to notice the thing (or universal) to which the teacher is pointing. I discussed those issues in more detail in Can Reports Of How Things Seem To Us Be False? and  Look, and Ostensive Teaching

In connection to the problem of non-existents, in few posts I argued that it can be given proper account if we base the meaning of the words to the intentional content as it appears in different types of psychological acts. I gave sketch of such account of names in the post Intentional Account of Names. As how this account connects to the issue of existence, I wrote the posts Existence and Transcendence, Three Ways in Which a Name Can Refer To A Non-ExistentDoes God Exists?, and in two posts I connected the issue of existence to more general Hegelian take on existence in The Balls That Didn’t Exist and  Further Thoughts on Non-Existence, etc…


My stance toward the issues from philosophy of Mind is tightly connected to my general stance towards philosophy as given in the previous sections. Taking physical world as abstraction from being-in-the-world, where the physical world is abstracted in the terms of the notions of physics, I believe that physical picture is leaving behind (or abstract from) lot of things from this being-in-the-world, including but not limited to the being itself, the wholeness of our being in the world, intentionality, and in general all those qualities which don’t present themselves as easily quantifiable, and which are usually put under the term of ‘qualia’. In such way, my believes are incompatible with physicalism. I wrote about this in the posts Qualia as Metaphysical Issue, Holism, Reductionism and Consciousness, and also presented argument against a possibility for artificial neural networks to be conscious through Record/Replay thought experiment.

My believes are incompatible with dualism either, and to my thinking it is a failed response to physicalism. As one I believe that it wrongly reifies lot of categories, like that of consciousness, qualia, mind. I talked about that in some of the mentioned posts, but also in Is “Mind” Phenomenal or Theoretical Concept, and Phenomenal Fishiness.


Math is one of the places where I believe we can get a hold on our abstractions in very clear way, and that we can easily comprehend those relations. In connection to this, I tried to explain my grasp on the simple mathematical relation 1+1=2, in the post Familiar Faces, Gestalts and A Priori Truths. In connection to this, I also had another post Is 1+1=2 Intuited?, though I must say, I don’t really believe that the argument holds any strength, and even I do believe that 1+1=2 is intuited, the approach in the previously mentioned post is more to my liking, in inline with rest of my web of beliefs. Also I believe (in line with Hegel’s argument) that the number should be properly taken as a ratio (instead of aggregate), and that if we take it in such sense, we can easily comprehend the equations between two sides in which on the one of the sides some kind of “infinity” appears. I wrote about this in the posts – Comprehending 1=0.999… and Hegel and Infinite Series.


As I said, I believe that being-in-the-world as a starting whole in which any notion will appear as abstraction. In such way the being-in-the-world is not something that somehow exists in time, but as any other abstraction, time will be abstraction within that whole. I discussed this issue in the posts: Mental States vs. Stream of ConsciousnessTime As Abstraction, Hegel, Change and Contradiction

Part Of My Web Of Beliefs That I Didn’t Blog About

I consider that it is just once that the most abstract is understood, that it is smart to move to less abstract things. And that’s why I have ignored lot of my beliefs that have to do with less-abstract things.

In such way, I did lot of posts connected to the most simple relations of words and their meanings, even though I don’t think that the language itself can be reduced to this relation. In my opinion the language as it is in our being-in-the-world, can’t be comprehended as notion properly without connecting it to its practice in the spirit of Wittgenstein and Austin, from which those clear-cut abstract relation between words and meanings must be seen just as a specific abstraction. I touched on this issue, that there is more to meaning of sentences then combination of meaning of words, in the post Wink, Wink – Do You Understand What I Mean?

In same way, when it comes to notions (or concepts), I ignored the less abstract notions and issues which appear with those less abstract (and which some might call “vague”) concepts, which to my current thinking are best addressed by theory theory of concepts to some extent, while full account it would seem might be impossible without comprehending concepts as part of the language as practice. Instead, I kept my attention just on very abstract notions (with a short excursion into those less abstract issues maybe in the post Are Hedgehogs small spiny animals?) , which present themselves as clearest to the mind, and whose relations among themselves (among those abstract concepts) are easiest to understand.

While talking a lot about holistic account of things, and arguing that physical notions are abstraction, I also didn’t get into more precise defining of the nature of those abstractions (physical), except few side-notes in the philosophy of math posts, and very short recent post Lifeless Laws.

The Book Of The Future

Shawn has post over at Words and Other Things, asking for philosophical books to be available as searchable .pdfs. That made me think, and I came up with the following scenario that I would like to be true. It might not be possible in the year of James Bond, but few years in the future… maybe.

In the scenario we all have e-paper devices (something like this, this, this, or eventually something that looks like being actually made after 1990) with access to Internet. The device connects to a book provider, to which we pay e.g. $10 a month.

Using that device we are able to search and choose books, papers, to click through the references to get to other books, etc… and the pages of the books/papers will be then streamed (not fully downloaded) to this reader device.

The amount of money we pay, is then divided per time we spend reading each of the books. If half of the month I spend reading some book, it gets $5. If I read just few pages, but find out it is not for me, it gets just few cents.

If such system exist, even bloggers might be able to fit in! – the provider might not just provide philosophy books, but also serve philosophy blogs, and bloggers could be payed for providing content, that other people read through such service (according to the time spent). As a reader I would be glad if part of my money goes to those bloggers whose posts I spend lot of time reading.

Of course, this kind of service doesn’t have to be limited to philosophy books. It can be for books in general, but there is one problem for this kind of generalizing… Some books are very specialized, and doesn’t have as much readership as others, and thus might not provide return of investment if the $10 are divided to all kind of books. It seems more plausible for the system to work if people pay separately for different types of books (e.g. I will pay $10 monthly for access to philosophy books, and then separate $5 if I want access to fiction).
Maybe the price per category can be even calculated by some formula, so that more readership some category of books has, the less money the reader should pay for the service.

Further Thoughts on Non-existence

Few posts ago, I wrote that we always name the content of our intentional acts. We can’t name something that doesn’t first appear as a content of intentional acts. Depending of the type of the intentional act, we can name something we perceive, something we assume, something we imagine, something we wish, need, and so on.

Connected to this, we can talk about the issue of names of non-existents…

  1. Perceptual content, e.g. a circle may be an illusion.
  2. Assumed content might be a part of some theory that doesn’t correspond with the truth. For example I assume there was burglar in my house, and call him Jack, the theory might turn out to be wrong.
  3. Someone can tell or write a story, in which there is some fictional thing (imaginary intentional content).
  4. Something that exists eventually disappears (e.g. dinosaurs).
  5. There might not be a thing as we describe in the world (a pink unicorn)

Those are some of the cases where we usually use “X doesn’t exist”, so we say that e.g. “the circle you see doesn’t really exist” (illusion), “Jack doesn’t exist” (wrong theory), “Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist” (fictional/imaginary content), “Dinosaurs don’t exist now” (disappeared), “Pink unicorns don’t exist” (there is no x, such that Fx).

Are those different and contingent cases which end up with a fact that some intentional content named “X” doesn’t exist, or so to say, is there a single criterion which defines what makes something named “X” to be non-existent?

In one sense, existence (or being) is sublated in any higher notion. So any intentional content will have the moment of existence in itself in any case (check this previous post). So to say, imaginary content has imaginary existence, assumed content has assumed existence, illusion has illusionary existence, etc… So what we mean by “doesn’t exist” can’t be negating the existence in general, as intentional content will necessarily have it as part of its determined existence (e.g. an imaginary unicorn will be an imaginary animal, will be an imaginary thing, will be an imaginary being), but it will be negating a specific type of existence.

If we accept that, and we accept that what we mean by “X” is inter-subjectively transcendent (by using “X” people think and talk about same thing), seems to me that we can say that in those cases saying “doesn’t exist” is negating the specific way of existence of that particular inter-subjective intentional content, and not the existence in general.  As it was said, as much as something is transcendental content, it will have some form of existence, so it would be negating the reality, actuality, or some more specific type of existence of the content.

So because of this, it seems that specifying single criterion for “non-existence” would not just be oversimplification, but also unnecessary, as in order to talk about “non-existence” of X, the specifying of the intentional content – X would have to include more precise information about the content than some binary existence predicate. For example in order to specify meaning of God, one would have to answer questions which would include the issue of what is usually named as an issue of existence of God,.